Averil Edith Thomas: Life Writing, Class and Identity

‘… pinafores however must have been only for the “lower class”‘ (21)

Averil Edith Thomas was very aware of her position in society as a working-class woman. She addresses her class identity numerous times within her memoir, particularly when differentiating her appearance and clothes against other girls’ her age.

Averil reveals that as far as she was aware ‘every girl, indoors and out, at school or at a parties, wore a pinafore’ (19). After beginning her scholarship at High School at the age of fourteen, she was placed ‘in the top class’ (20/21) and was asked to leave her pinafore ‘at home in the afternoon’ (21). She reflects on this, concluding that ‘pinafores however must have been only for the “lower class”‘ (21). This must have made Averil feel like an outcast in her school, with children and teachers aware of her lack of wealth in comparison to everyone else. This suggests that it was uncommon for working -classes to be seen in High School, let alone placed in the top class.

pinafores
Girls wearing pinafores similar to how Averil’s would have looked

The importance of clothes became very important to one’s identity and position in society during the nineteenth century, with post-war consumerism only enhancing this further in later years. Averil states, ‘dresses “off the peg” were not attainable in my younger days, neither would they have been possible for us to afford’ (5). Instead, a friend of her mother would send a ‘box of clothes and shoes which they had finished with’ (5) for her and her siblings to wear. Their neighbour, Annie Palmer, helped to fit and sew these dresses to the children for Sunday School; her ‘word was law when she was dressmaking’ (6). It is evident that her family strongly desired to look presentable to the outside community; suggesting that at the time clothes were as significant to an individual’s identity as their line of work.

Vivienne Richmond has researched into the significance of clothing during this era, and comments;

‘Clothing and appearance were central elements of nineteenth century working class respectability… Although a collective endeavour in the family context, women, as with budgeting, bore a greater share of the responsibility for respectability… While an acceptable appearance, personal and familial, could be the occasion of great pride, equally its absence could generate immense shame’ (159/160)

Richmond highlights how Averil and her family would have took great care over their appearance in hope of preventing feelings of ‘immense shame’. Whilst being aware of their class status, Averil and her family seem to reject it in hope of being perceived as wealthier than they actually were. Dressmaking was therefore a way of allowing the lower class, in particular women, to feel good about themselves when society made them feel inadequate. As discovered in my life and labour post, Averil’s older sister, Nancy, went on to become a dressmaker herself. She must have been influenced by Annie Palmer to continue making the working-class feel good about their life, as Palmer had done for her and her family.

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Working-class women stitching dress in 19th century

Averil’s acceptance of this class differentiation is reflected in the writing style of her memoir. Autobiographies were usually reserved for the middle and upper classes, with very little lower-class memoirs surviving throughout history. Therefore, working-class people like Averil may have felt as though their autobiography was not worthy enough of publication, as their life was not as extravagant as other writers’. She writes very impersonal, as if documenting personal experiences or struggles in detail was not worth sharing, as it did not have a place in popular prose. Although writing a memoir at all contrasts this idea, as Averil obviously felt worthy of creating an autobiography, the content of her writing still concentrates on her home rather than her actual life. This is touched upon in my purpose and audience post, and I cannot help but feel frustrated that Averil did not feel worthy enough to include other details about her life, such as descriptions of her husband, children or career.

Sources:

Averil Edith Thomas, Untiled, pp.26 (c. 6,500 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library. No 1:892

Richmond, Vivienne. Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Cambridge University Press (2013). p 160.

Images:

http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-writing.htm

http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-sewing.htm

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